Common Chemicals May Weaken Effect of Childhood Vaccines, Immune System

January 24, 2012

All of the children and mothers in the study lived in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and Scotland. Faroe Islanders are exposed to an unusual dietary source of PFCs, whale meat from polluted waters, but average blood levels of PFCs in Faroese children are comparable to those in American children, the researchers say.

At the urging of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the chemical industry agreed to phase out one of the PFCs examined in the study (known as PFOS) in most consumer products by 2002, and since then several companies have voluntarily agreed to stop using and emitting the other (PFOA) by 2015.

Thanks to these efforts, average PFC exposure in the United States has declined over the past decade, Grandjean says. PFCs take many years to break down in the environment, however, and they similarly remain in the body for years once people ingest them. “For that reason, we ought to be concerned that they may be causing some adverse effects over the long range,” he says.

Marie Francis, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing chemical manufacturers, said in a statement that the chemical industry is “carefully reviewing” the new study, and that more research is needed to replicate the results.

“It is important for consumers to know that our companies, working with the EPA, have made marked progress towards advancing new chemistries that are substitutes for the older chemicals evaluated in this study,” Francis said. “These new fluoro chemistries have an improved environmental and toxicological profile while continuing to offer consumer benefits.”

Margie Peden-Adams, PhD, a research toxicologist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, says it’s impossible to entirely avoid PFCs because they are pervasive in the environment. PFC-free products (such as carpeting) do exist, she says, but they tend to be expensive and hard to find.

Steering clear of PFCs is difficult because the government does not require companies to state whether a product contains the chemicals, Grandjean says. To make matters worse, he adds, China—the United States’ second-largest trading partner—has no restrictions on PFC use.

Both children and adults are likely exposed to PFCs in their diets through food containers, but it’s not clear how much of the chemicals in these containers actually find their way into food, Peden-Adams says.

And young children may be especially vulnerable to non-food sources of exposure. “They spend much of their time, early on, playing on or near the floor, increasing their exposure to compounds in dust, soil, and on carpets,” Peden-Adams says.

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